Tag Archives: Belgrade Theatre Coventry

Mods and Mockers

ROMEO AND JULIET

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 20th June, 2017

 

The consistently excellent Oddsocks Productions revisits Shakespeare’s tragedy of star-cross’d lovers, this time giving it a mods and rockers setting.  There is more of Brighton than Verona and, in keeping with the company’s fun-loving style, it works extremely well.  The two households are divided by musical differences; the Montagues are the mods, the Capulets the rockers, and the audience is also divided along these lines for a running joke of participation that, instead of becoming more tired as the play goes on, becomes more hilarious.

Director and resident genius Andy Barrow appears as both Capulet, a pot-bellied Black Country rocker, and a bandana-sporting, sneering Tybalt.  At one point he is called upon to argue with himself behind the bar of the Capulets’ Cavern of Rock – just one of the many highlights that exhibit the man’s comic superpowers.  This is also the first time I’ve heard a rendition of ‘Black Betty’ in a Shakespeare production.  Barrow is generous is sharing the laughs out among the rest of his cast of six, a group that comprises familiar faces and new recruits.

Returning favourites include Rebecca Little as the Nurse – another of her remarkable characterisations, distilling the essence of the Shakespearean model and blending it with Oddsocks energy.  It is remarkable how the moment can turn, and knockabout antics suddenly become heartfelt.  I’ve said it before, many times, this is what Oddsocks does so brilliantly: giving us a lot of fun but remaining true to the spirit of the play.  Every now and then Shakespeare asserts himself and the drama comes to the fore.  One such moment tonight is the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio (Alexander Bean).  It’s all fun and games until someone loses a kinsman.  Cartoon, slapstick violence is suddenly deadly serious.  Kudos to fight director Ian Stapleton!

Also back for more is the marvellous Gavin Harrison as Benvolio, in parka and pork pie hat, and ‘Jimmy Paris’ a Rockstar guitarist.  Harrison is fast becoming a fixture in this company – they’d be hard pressed to find anyone to better him.

Newcomer Alexander Bean’s Mercutio surprises us with the sudden beauty of the Queen Mab speech, and his West Indian Friar Laurence is a deadpan delight.  The rhythms of Shakespeare’s verse fits many accents – Oddsocks certainly puts that to the test!

Also new are the eponymous lovers.  Pippa Lewis’s rock chick Juliet is wonderfully immature and, unbelievably, credible!  She also plays a mean saxophone.  Good-looking Matthew Burns is a great find as Romeo, moody, volatile and very funny.

This tight ensemble all play instruments and sing.  Oddsocks productions of late have become musicals, interpolating hits of yesteryear (and sometimes of the present day!) into the action.  The choices are always spot on.  And never more than at the end, when the stage is littered with bodies and Benvolio leads a rendition of ‘Enjoy Yourself, it’s later than you think’.

Bloody bonkers and bloody brilliant.

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Called to the bar: Andy Barrow as Tybalt


Bubbling Over

THE BUBBLY BLACK GIRL SHEDS HER CHAMELEON SKIN

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Thursday 6th April, 2017

 

A co-production with Theatre Royal Stratford East, this new version of Kirsten Childs’s appealing musical froths with effervescence, like champagne.  But, as our protagonist demonstrates, there’s a nasty undertone to life and all she can do is to move on to the next frothy moment.   Viveca “Call me Bubbly” Stanton spends her life trying to be liked.  We see her go from childhood dreams of being a world-famous dancer and being white to trying to fit in with flower power and the growing black consciousness, to auditioning for Broadway roles, and so on, all before she at last fulfils the promise of the show’s title and quits trying to blend in and be herself.

The first act is set in L.A. and begins when a very young Bubbly (a perky Karis Jack) learns of the deaths of four young girls in Alabama, bombed while they were at church.  It’s a scarring moment – and motivates Bubbly’s ‘chameleon’ nature.  She doesn’t want the same fate to befall her.  Karis Jack is a mass of energy, with a sweet voice and broad smile – you can’t help liking her; Bubbly’s delusions, dreams and ambitions are her shields against the racial intolerance and hate crimes in her world.  The second act follows Bubbly to New York City where the role is taken over by Sophia Mackay, who belts out her more soulful numbers.  Both actors are immensely talented, vocally and comedically.  And so we get two leading ladies for the price of one, which can’t be bad.

The score is irresistible – there’s not a duff number in it.  Musically, it’s a lot like Hair with a touch of Little Shop of Horrors.  Mykal Rand’s choreography evokes each decade of Bubbly’s story as much as Rosa Maggiora’s costumes.  Childs’s lyrics sparkle with wit and her book tends to keep matters light – this is musical theatre, after all.  Hairspray deals with civil rights issues more directly – here we see the individual’s response – in NYC, Bubbly faces discrimination more directly and, until her metaphoric skin-shedding, adapts to accommodate it, cranking up the stereotype in order to be accepted.

Trevor A. Toussaint as Bubbly’s Daddy has a deep rich voice I could listen to all night, while Sharon Wattis as Bubbly’s more pragmatic Mommy shares a searing duet with her daughter that gives rise to chills.  Llandyll Gove amuses as a fairytale prince and as dippy hippy Cosmic Rainbow.  Jessica Pardoe is striking as Bubbly’s childhood doll (white, of course!) Chitty Chatty, and later as a succession of dance teachers.  Shelley Williams almost stops the show dispensing Granny’s Advice, a rousing, gospel-like number, and Jay Marsh’s Gregory shows incredible vocal range. The orchestrations by musical director Jordan Li-Smith convince with their authentic sounds across the timespan of the story.

It’s a hugely enjoyable piece with plenty of laughs and toe-tapping songs.  It also has something to say to us in this benighted age, by showing us the psychological devastation of racism on a child.  Growing up black in a white world has much in common with growing up queer in a straight one (that’s a dissertation for someone else to write!) – we see the consequences of prejudice and hate, blighting Bubbly’s life before she’s started to live it.  The show doesn’t browbeat us with its message but is nonetheless powerful for its apparent lightness.

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Karis Jack

 


The Play Works

THE MACHINE STOPS

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 4th April, 2017

 

This production from Pilot Theatre comes to the end of its tour at the Belgrade’s B2 studio.  Given its themes, you would think the original short story on which the play is based was written five minutes ago.  The story is astonishingly prescient and no less pertinent having first seen the light of day in 1909.  That’s 1909 not 2009.

We are in a post-apocalyptic future.  Humanity lives underground, each individual in their own room or cell in which they find all their needs fulfilled by the ‘Machine’ that sustains them.  All communication is done via personal screens – in this way, people have contacts the whole world over but they never meet.  Sound familiar?  Kuno (Rohan Nedd) has other ideas.  He believes that humanity has lost something of itself because we no longer interact in person.  He’s not wrong.  He tries to persuade his mother – the woman who gave birth to him, to be more precise – that there is more to life, that the surface isn’t as barren and toxic as the Machine leads everyone to believe.

The woman – Vashti, played by an excellent Ricky Butt – clings to her blinkered views and complete and blind faith in the Machine as a force for good.  She even begins praying to it – in a stark reminder that the divine is manmade.  It is only when it’s too late and the Machine breaks down that Vashti realises what has been lost.

It’s an enthralling piece, rich with ideas both in form and content.  Maria Gray and Adam Slynn are almost ever-present as parts of the Machine, writhing and contorting in grey bodystockings, in a mesmerising display of acrobatics and physicality.  Rhys Jarman’s set consists of a framework that serves as a kind of jungle gym for the Machine parts as well as delineating the limits of the cells.  Tom Smith’s lighting makes superb use of darkness for chilling effect, and Juliet Forster’s direction keeps the action taut, the ideas provocative.  In fact, only the electronic music seems somewhat dated in its presentation of ‘futuristic’ sounds.

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Adam Slynn and Maria Gray (Photo: Ben Bentley)

Rohan Nedd portrays Kuno’s rebellious drive and evangelism with verve but it is Ricky Bull’s Vashti who has the stronger impact, like a Brexiteer clinging to the wreckage of civilisation and proclaiming all is well.

Neil Duffield’s adaptation reveals the relevance of the original story – unless we regain our relationship with nature, we are doomed.  In these days of unfettered capitalism and climate change denial, the message is urgent and compelling.

And the writer of the original tale, way back in 1909?  None other than E. M. Forster!  He of Room With A View fame and the source of many other Merchant-Ivory films.  This seems as astounding to me as the story itself.  Good on you, E. M!

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Ricky Butt (Photo: Ben Bentley)


Stuff and Nonsense

The Quite Remarkable Adventures of THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Tuesday 21st February, 2017

 

Edward Lear’s famous nonsense poem was the springboard for a book by former Python Eric Idle.  Now the book is adapted for the stage by composer and musical director, Dougal Irvine (who also provides the voice of the ‘Small Guitar’ and an imaginary dragon!).

The production is nothing short of charming.  An energetic ensemble of actor-musicians, led by Irvine, get proceedings underway with an audience singalong – normally the kind of thing to make me shrink in my seat, but the tune is infectious, the lyrics (including animal noises) are fun, and so I join in and am immediately put into a good mood, and predisposed to think kindly of the action as it unfolds.

The titular pair, both riddled with self-doubt and low self-esteem, form a bond when, Deep Impact style, they notice a comet is heading directly for the Earth, threatening an extinction event not seen since the dinosaurs were wiped out.  They inform an appropriate human at a university and set out on a quest to find the runaway Bong Tree (voiced by Idle himself, no less!).  Meanwhile, the show’s baddie, Lord Firelord is planning to wipe out all life on Earth with the creation of a new ice age…

The charm of the actors and the richness of the score, with its lively melodies and clever lyrics, keeps us on board this ride in the pea-green boat.  There is some social comment here – humans are too preoccupied with shopping to notice or care about their imminent destruction, and there is an obvious environmental message – but I think the show’s ‘lessons’ are in danger of being considered ‘nonsense’ along with the rest.  Characters take pride in speaking nonsense; anything they say that we are meant to take on board could easily be dismissed…

That aside, this is an enjoyable, family show, performed with verve and heart.  Danny Lane as Owl, and Sally Frith as Pussycat, are likeable protagonists, and their singing voices blend magnificently in their duets.  Miri Gellert impresses, voicing two glove puppets at once – similarly, Yanick Ghanty portrays a pair of henchmen simultaneously.  A comic highlight of the show is when he falls out with himself and beats himself up in a skilful display of physical comedy.  Vedi Roy plays bad guy Firelord with relish, complete with maniacal laughter, although I found his costume made him look like an Indian Elvis in Vegas.  Lizzie Wofford’s Pig and Professor Bosh show her versatility as a character actor – her singing voice is particularly powerful.

Director Hamish Glen balances larger-than-life characters and outlandish events with quieter, emotional moments, allowing the cast to bring out the ‘human’ (for want of a better word) side of the characters.  The kids in the audience are clearly enrapt by the drama with its themes of global extinction and mortality, friendship and love, while the adults enjoy the sharper jokes.  Libby Watson’s versatile set forms a backdrop for Dick Straker’s video projections, to depict the story’s various locations attractively and economically.  But for me, the production is all about one man – Mr Dougal Irvine.  His script is enriched by his compositions, a beautiful score other, larger productions would do well to emulate (I’m looking at you, Wonderland!)

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Many Wrongs Make a Right

THE PLAY THAT GOES WRONG

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Monday 23rd January, 2017

 

Those of us involved in live performance in any way will have stories to tell, usually for comic effect, about moments on stage that have gone awry: a prop that wasn’t there, a missed cue, a technical mishap, or even just the hell of being stranded in a scene with a co-star who is less than competent.  Writers Henry Lewis, Jonathan Sayer and Henry Shields have gathered all those moments and distilled them into a nightmare – for the actors.  For the audience, it’s a treat.

“Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society” are staging ropey old murder mystery The Murder at Haversham Manor.  Beset from the start by difficulties, they battle on to the bitter end, incurring injury and embarrassment along the way.  Patrick Warner plays director Chris Bean, bringing a touch of Basil Fawlty to his moments of extremis.   He also appears as Inspector Carter – our pleasure comes from seeing his characterisation slip as his desperation and exasperation grow.  Edward Judge is a delight as bombastic Thomas, declaiming in plus fours, while Alistair Kirton shamelessly plays to the gallery every time a bit of posturing receives approval.  Before long he has gained confidence and is gesturing and gesticulating like a semaphore signaller.  Meg Mortell flits around in the ingénue role until a mishap causes her to be replaced by a clueless stage manager who soon becomes violently possessive about her new role.  Jason Callender makes for the most mobile and expressive corpse you will ever see, and Edward Howells’s butler, hopeless at pronunciation, is consistently hilarious.  Add to the mix, Graeme Rooney’s less-than-conscientious lighting and sound operator and the drama that unfolds is not the one the drama society would like us to see.

Instead, the tension comes from watching this talented cast perform feats of physical comedy that are painfully funny.  We cringe at the awfulness of their plight, marvel at the way they get out of situations, and gasp at the surprises that crop up in their path.  Director Mark Bell manages the mania and the descent into chaos, giving us shocks and suspense, both of which we relish.

An unadulterated pleasure to have the chance to see this show as it tours again, but this time I am struck by what it says about us as humans.  The show-must-go-on mentality is a cliché, but beyond the theatre, this play going wrong can also be a metaphor for human endeavour.  Despite what life throws at us, there is a drive to keep things going, to bring order, to adapt and endure, even if it all comes crashing down around us.  It’s what enables us to survive as a species.

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Clever Dick

PRIVATE DICK WHITTINGTON

B2, Belgrade Theatre, Thursday 8th December, 2016

 

While the pantomime larges it in the main house, it has become a tradition in the Belgrade’s studio space to stage an alternative version.  It has also become a highlight of the season for me.  Last year’s excellent Vampomime was one of my top shows of 2015.

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Writer Nick Walker – a very inventive man – frames his version of Dick Whittington in the film noir genre of The Maltese Falcon.  Dick is a private detective, a Sam Spade figure, making wisecracks and firing off puns like a machine-gun.  Walker cleverly marries tropes of the genre with aspects of the panto story: Dick is framed for theft, there’s a shipwreck, a sultan, a cat… It’s an amazing feat of writing and those puns (‘She went to South America? I don’t Bolivia!’) are delightfully groan-worthy.

Heading the company is Keeley Harker as the eponymous detective – a homage to the tradition of principal boy.  Her delivery is pitch-perfect, rattling off pun after pun with exquisite timing and a Noo Yoik accent.    She is more than ably supported by a versatile trio who play all the other parts.  Nicky Cross’s femme fatale, Lauren Alderman, is a sultry vamp, beautifully melodramatic as she stalks and poses around the stage.  Anna Piper’s roles include the cat (here a magician’s assistant), a snake charmer and a hypnotist’s wife, all of them larger-than-life and very funny.  Liam Nooney is suitably villainous as Mr Hypnoza and his Sultan turns out to be a rather camp Northerner.

It’s as silly as it is clever.  Director Robin Colyer adds visual gags to complement the incessant punning and keeps the action rattling along at quite a lick.  It adds up to an hour of laugh-out-loud fun.  Wonderfully daft, energetically and amusingly handled, this Dick brings pleasure to everyone.

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Smoking pun: Keeley Harker as Dick and Nicky Cross as Lauren Alderman (Photo: Robert Day)


Dick Leads The Way

DICK WHITTINGTON

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, Friday 25th November, 2016

 

My first Christmas show of the season and it’s a cracker!  The Belgrade may not hire the ‘big’ names on the panto circuit but this is more than compensated for by a traditional show performed by consummate professionals who actually have the necessary skills.

I am pleased to see a revival of the tradition of the principal boy.  Tricia Adele-Turner is a good-natured, honest and upright Dick.  Pantomime, it turns out, was ahead of the game when it comes to gender-blind casting.  Dick’s faithful companion, Tommy the Cat, is the acrobatic and flexible Becky Stone, who manages to inject her singe-word vocabulary with a wide range of expression!  Kelly Agredo is a charming love interest as Alice Fitzwarren, while Declan Wilson offers sterling support as her father Alderman Fitzwarren.  Wilson also appears as the Sultan of Morocco, here more of a Ben Gunn figure in an amusing cameo.  Anna Mitcham is a spirited Fairy Bow Bells, spouting Cockney rhyming slang like a U certificate Danny Dyer.

The driving energy of the show comes from writer/director Iain Lauchlan who also appears as the dame, Sarah the Cook.  Teamed up with Craig Hollingsworth’s Idle Jack, the pair are a force to be reckoned with, handling the audience with apparent ease.  One man is brought onto the stage several times for ritual humiliation – and the rest of us sit back in relief to enjoy his discomfort, except it’s all so good-natured and kind, it is nothing but fun.   This is a panto with a big, generous heart – Lauchlan’s heart, it must be.  He is canny enough to include the traditional elements we expect to see but, as the use of the audience member illustrates, is able to make those traditions fresh.

Whether onstage together or alone, Lauchlan and Hollingsworth exude joy and benevolence.  In total contrast is Melone M’Kenzy as the formidable and imposing Queen Rat.  For me this is the star performance of the show, a villain who is actually villainous.  She is a sassy supermodel, dressed for Halloween and has a rich singing voice that is to die for.  Queen Rat’s henchmen Scratch and Sniff (Matthew Brock and Eden Dominique) are also great value – Lauchlan wisely gives them plenty to do.

The songs are original – I usually prefer pantos to have well-known pop hits and standards – but in this instance, Liz Kitchen’s compositions are great, especially those performed by M’Kenzy.

Mark Walters’s costumes are a visual treat – naturally (if that’s the right word) Sarah the Cook’s outfits are the eyepopping best.  Production values in general are of a high quality and, given the nature of the script and its handling by one of pantomime’s most skilled proponents, pantomime in Coventry is in very safe hands indeed.

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Rat pack: Matthew Brock, Melone M’Kenzy and Eden Dominique (Photo: Robert Day)